Directing the Journey in An Inspector Calls.

Gaily, possessively

With mock agressiveness

Half serious, half playful

Trying to be light and easy

Staring at him, agitated

Miserably

Laughs rather hysterically

Cutting in, as he hesitates

With sharp sarcasm

Flaring up

Bitterly

Passionately

 

Rather than a series of statement outlining my recent conduct in any number of meetings, the above statements, are in fact a selection of stage directions from J.B.Priestley’s, ‘An Inspector Calls.’ The stage directions, taken from all 3 acts of the play and ordered sequentially, give the reader/producer/director guidance as to how the actor playing the role of  Sheila Birling, Priestley’s symbol of all that the world could be, is to deliver the lines ascribed to her.

Looked at in isolation, the stage directions also provide a useful map of Sheila’s journey from a naïve ‘pretty girl’ to perspicacious young woman: her blithely playful nature becomes quickly tempered with a seriousness that turns to angst, which eventually resolves itself into vehement disgust at her parents’ startling lack of empathy for anyone outside of their privileged elite.

I started off the lesson asking students to consider who the stage directions might ‘belong’ to and explain the reasoning behind their choice. This enabled me to assess their understanding of a range of characters. For example, one student suggested the directions belonged to Mrs Birling and I was able to probe them on their understanding of the play we’d finished reading two lessons before:

“Is Mrs Birling a hysterical woman then? Because the stage directions says ‘laugh hysterically’ “

“Oh…no. But she might do all the other ones.”

“At what point does Mrs B ‘flare up’ then?”

“Well, when she find out that Eric…”

And so on.

After some discussion, and once we’d ascertained that the directions belonged to Sheila, I was then provided with an opportunity to assess students’ understanding of Sheila’s progression through the novel:

Can anyone remember why Sheila might laugh hysterically?

When does she flare up?

Why is she trying to be light and easy and at which point?

Once I’d done this I asked students to draw an arrow alongside the stage directions and ‘map’ Sheila’s emotions at (roughly) each stage. Something like this:

Yum

Realising (halfway through the lesson) that finding quotations for each of these emotions would probably produce some cognitive overload, I then asked students to bastardise their work and reduce these emotions to three broader categories. Like so:

 

CONTENTMENT

TURMOIL

ANGER

Then, I asked students to find a quotation for each of these broader emotions. My instructions were clear:

  1. Don’t simply find the line that ‘goes with’ the stage directions we looked at originally.
  2. Find a quotation that works for you. Ask yourself: Is this the very best quotation that sums up Sheila’s contentment/turmoil/anger at the start/middle/end of the play? In less than a year’s time, in that closed book exam, have I done enough now?’
  3. The quotation must be short enough for you to remember it easily.

Of course, as students were retrieving quotations, I walked round the classroom advising and questioning where necessary.

So, what do I think students got from this lesson?

  • A record of Sheila’s changing emotional state and status throughout the play.
  • Three quotations that sum up this emotional ‘journey’ from contentment to turmoil to passionate vehemence.
  • A greater understanding of the importance of stage directions in theatre.
  • An opportunity to consolidate understanding of plot, and character (both primary-Sheila- and secondary- the other lot).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corridors: The ultimate behaviour management tool.

I originally intended opening this blog post with a metaphor describing the corridors of a school as the veins of a school; the means by which those innumerable people that make a school a school go to and from the places that bring a school to life: the classrooms, the assembly halls and yes, it must be said, the meeting rooms. 
However, this metaphor wouldn’t do justice to the complex role that corridors play in our schools. Rather than viewing our school corridors as vascular pathways that simply enable students and staff to circulate the colossal torso of the school, we should instead see these corridors as a central nervous system: A web of intricate pathways made up of neutrons and dendrites, where messages are carried, delivered, and received all of the time. The corridor is not simply a means of travel; the corridor is a means of communication.
Of all the things @boxerhardy has taught me in his continued role as my mentor, the thing that sticks out most was his advice, “Always talk to kids in the corridor.” At the time I suppose this advice struck me as unusual- I’m a teacher, of course I’m going to want to talk to kids in the corridor- but, 4 years into the job and I’m realising that I was given this advice, because there are teachers who don’t utilise the corridors for what they are: a powerful tool for behaviour management.
Talking to students in the corridor makes it easier to manage difficult student behaviour. Why? Because offering a cheery ‘hello’, or asking a student how their go-karting event went at the weekend, shows you respect them. You care about them as a person and you understand that there is more to them than the three hours a week they spend in your lessons. Students often look visibly shocked when I ask them, in the corridor, about something they mentioned during a lesson a week or two previously. And, after they’ve blundered their way through a reply, I watch as they exclaim their surprise at my having remembered such and such in excitedly hushed tones to their friends. Talking to students in the corridor is an investment. If you respect students as people in the corridors, they are more likely to respect you as a teacher in the classroom.
I make as much, if not more, effort to talk to students I don’t teach as those I do. This is very important. Teachers who only talk to the students they know, are ignoring those that they don’t. And being ignored is not a nice feeling for anyone. You know when you’re at a party and your group of friends are introduced to someone they already know but you don’t. And that person only looks them in the eyes, and ignores you, as they tell you all about how successful they are. And you really want to punch them? Yeah, kids feel that too. Teachers who only address the students they teach, reveal themselves to be socially inept individuals who discriminate in their offerings of kindness. Be a model of good practice. Make eye contact with everyone; talk to everyone; smile at everyone. After all, the students you don’t teach this year, may be the students you’ll be teaching next year, or the year after, or the year after that. Having the foundations of a relationship with one or two students already, at the start of a new academic year, can prove invaluable.
But how do you talk to a child you know nothing about? ‘Good morning/afternoon’ is a nice start, but I often find a jocular ‘Stop smiling-you’re at school’ works well. As does, ‘Cor! You look very smart. What’s your name?’ and ‘Cheer up- only 4 more years to go and then you can play World of Warcraft all day, every day.’ Have fun with it. You’re an adult, you’ll be able to discern who you can have a joke with, and who it’s best to simply say a polite ‘Good morning’ to. And if you can’t, stick with the ‘good morning’; it’s just as valuable, and gratefully (albeit secretly) received.
Ask kids their names in the corridor. It’s awkward, but I will literally say to kids, “I must remember your name in case I bump into you again. What is it? Okay, nice to meet you John. Thanks for smiling at me.” Or, “Oit! You! The lovely human being who held that door open for me. What’s your name?” The value of names as a behaviour management tool is explored in this excellent blog post by Jonny Walker.
Be aware that the students you might wish to avoid most in the corridor, are likely to be those most in need of corridor contact. Some students are not given the chances they should, by some staff. Some students aren’t given a ‘fresh chance’ every single lesson. Some teachers harbour prejudices and grudges. Naughty Johnny, who spends his life being talked about as ‘naughty Johnny’ could do with someone treating him like an actual human being and not a delinquent. So say hello to Naughty Johnny in the corridor, only call him by his actual name. It’s not Naughty Johnny, or Difficult Johnny, or ADHD Johnny; it’s just Johnny.
So next week, when you’re on the way to the canteen to fetch your overpriced panini, do the right thing: spot a kid you don’t know who has also succumbed, shamefully, to the overpriced, pseudo-Italian carbohydrate snack, roll your eyes, smile and say: “Cor. You need to rob a bank to buy one of these don’tcha.”

A Classroom Exchange

The following is from a recent lesson.

Me: Okay, so question one was, ‘Why do writers use alliteration? Who can tell me? Actually no- I want you to chant this in unison. What’s the wrong answer to this question?

Whole Class: TO MAKE IT CATCHY!

Me: Well done. So what’s the actual answer?

George: To draw attention to a particular word or phrase.

ME: Whose attention?

George: The reader’s.

Me: Okay. So, why do writers use alliteration?

George: To draw the reader’s attention to a particular word or phrase.

Me: Well done George. Christian, can you tell me a novel where we’ve seen a great example of alliteration?

Christian: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Me: Well done. And what was the example? Catherine?

Catherine: A  dog suffered on a hot summer’s day.

Me: Get rid of hot.

Catherine: A dog suffered on a summer’s day.

Me: Well done. Right, next question. And I’ll be impressed if you get this. What’s epistrophe?

David: When you repeat a sentence in a paragraph?

Me: Not quite David. Halfway there. Sort of. Chesney?

Chesney: Is it like anaphora but reversed?

Me: Okay, but what’s anaphora?

Chesney: Is it repetition of a phrase?

Me: How do you mean?

Chesney: I don’t know.

Me: Anaphora is a phrase that is repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, lines or paragraphs. So what’s epistrophe Chesney?

Chesney: Repeated phrases at the end of lines?

Me: Lines, clauses, or paragraphs. Do you all remember now?

(Audible murmur of excitement)

Me: Where have we seen epistrophe used to good effect?

Allegra: Julius Caesar.

Me: Yes, and what phrase is used this way?

Catherine: Brutus is a noble man?

Me: Close, but not quite. Anyone else?

Freya: Brutus is an honourable man?

George: Sir, isn’t that also irony?

Me: Yes it is! Wow, I forgot I’d taught you that! What’s irony?

George: When a writer says one thing, but means another. Does he use it to mug Brutus off?

(Class laughs)

Me: Ha! Yes he does! But what’s a better way of putting that? David?

David: He says it to make the audience realise how ridiculous the statement is?

Me: How do you mean?

David: Well, by constantly repeating it, it starts to sound silly. And the audience will maybe start to doubt it?

Me: I think that’s a good answer. Well done. Who remembers what ‘sibilance’ is?

Nile: Is it when people use alliteration?

Me: Ssssibilance Nile.

Nile: Oh! It’s when you get a repeated ‘s’ sound.

Me: Okay, and why do writers use it?

Nile: It can make people sound evily.

Me: What’s a better word than evily?

Nile: Evil.

Me: Thank you Nile. Right class. Tell me the wrong answer in unison please: What’s a rhetorical question?

Whole Class: A QUESTION THAT DOESN’T NEED AN ANSWER!

Me: Ha! Brilliant.  Right answer please?

Lacey: A rhetorical question is a question designed to make the listener think, or to make a point.

Me: Brilliant. Moving on to what we covered last lesson. What’s ‘denotation’?

Alexia: Denotation is when something is shown to be what it actually is.

Me: And connotation?

Alexia: What it makes you think of?

Me: Can someone tighten that up for me please?

Julia: A connotation is something that is suggested by an image.

Me: Just an image?

Julia: Oh! And a word.

Year 7, ladies and gentlemen.

(Julius Caesar, epistrophe, irony, and rhetorical questions were studied 5 weeks prior to this conversation taking place. Sibilance was studied 2 months prior to this conversation taking place. Alliteration in To Kill a Mockingbird was studied 5 months prior to this conversation taking place.)

 

Allusion: Teach It.

I recently awarded an A grade to a piece of descriptive writing that opened with the following phrase:

Last week, in a galaxy not too far, far away from junction 7 of the A3…

This student shunned the drab opening sentences, replete with the terminology of the question, adopted by most of his peers and decided to kick-off with an allusion. A Star Wars allusion.

Now, this allusion to Star Wars tells me a lot about this kid:

  • This kid cares about his audience. He knew that I, as an adult marker, would understand the cultural reference he was making and in making it, he allowed me access to an exclusive club that ‘gets it.’ And that made me feel good. This kid cares for his reader.
  • This kid is intelligent; he has an awareness of culture that stretches beyond the world of what is taught in the classroom, which he can draw upon in order to manipulate people’s responses to the work he produces. This kid thinks.
  • This kid knows how to exploit language for effect: there’s bathos in the way the sentence undercuts the sense of the epic, conveyed by the word ‘galaxy’, with the quotidian reference to a minor A-road in the South East of England. ‘Galaxies’ are beautiful and awe-inspiring; Junctions aren’t. There’s a level of self-deprecation here that is gripping in its maturity. This kid is clever.

Allusion is defined as ‘an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly’ and it’s something we should be getting kids used to in Year 7. Many schools, whether they are aware of it or not, are actually preparing kids for allusion right now. The recent proliferation of ‘Myths and Legends’ schemes of work, popping up on  Year 7 curriculums all over the land, are useful not only in their enjoyment factor, but also in providing students with points of reference to draw upon in their own work. Whether it’s making sense of Shakespeare (who uses classical allusion all the time) or creating interesting creative texts of ther own, allusions can help students to thrive in English.

I teach three different types of allusion: classical, cultural, and literary.  A typical lesson might run thus:

  1. Ask kids to write down everything they can remember about myths and legends from primary school. I normally get something akin to the following:

 

Hercules

Medusa

Icarus

Zeus

Poseiodon

Hades

Minotaur

 

Then, I get students to construct similes or metaphors using these. They can be very basic:

He was strong as Hercules

Slightly less basic:

One needed to be Hercules to lift him.

Or relatively complex:

If someone ever decided to chuck a 13th labour in Hercules’ direction, then passing this maths test was surely the thing to do.

Of course, I provide models of my own examples:

Even by Odysseus’ standards, this was a bad journey.

Cupid took one look at me and retired.

She was the sun and I Icarus. Doomed to fall and doomed to fail.

I had armpits wetter than Poseiodon’s beard.

Classical allusions are valuable, simply because of their cultural capital. Casual references to items of classical mythology reek of intellectual superiority. And anyone can do it, if taught well.

Literary allusions work very well too. Here’s a response I’ve written to an old GCSE language question that ask students to:

‘Describe a time you had to make a difficult decision and explain the consequences of your choice.’

There was no chance of not having to defecate that day. Last night’s vindaloo was my crime and this was my punishment. And now, like Raskilonov, I was plagued with an acute feeling of introspective torment. Why now? Here I was, 7 bags of shopping in hand, and with a Bertha Mason on my hands: something wanted out and it was impossible to keep it in. My eyes scanned the shopping mall, desperately searching for a public convenience-a name which was sounding increasingly ironic. The thing is, I was conflicted: Did I really even want to find a public toilet? Wasn’t every other alternative more attractive? You don’t need to be Holmes (hell, you don’t even need to be Watson) to realise the perils of public pooing: Public toilets are distinctly Orwellian; Unsavoury, nightmarish places where one constantly feels as though he or she is being watched. No chance. Not today.

Of course, I’ve overdone it here, for the sake of example and I wouldn’t advise anyone to cram their work with allusion as I have done here-it must be used sparingly for maximum effect. However, if any of the references above raised a knowing eyebrow, or provoked a wry smile, the allusion has worked! It’s captured you. It’s reached out to you. If that isn’t compelling, I don’t know what is. 

So how do we get to a place where students are able to make the kind of literary allusions I’ve used above?

The answer, of course, is reading. The problem is, not many kids will read to themselves. In Doug Lemov’s excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’ the authors champion the art of reading aloud to students. However, too often,  teachers won’t read aloud because there’s no immediate benefit in doing so. It’s the same reason kids don’t read themselves; reading can be slow in bearing its fruit. Allusion can change all that. Allusion is the perfect illustration of the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.Spend an hour reading to kids. Read them novels with cultural capital; novels that will make them sound clever when they allude to them.Read them 1984, Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Then, give them a creative writing task and ask them to allude to an aspect of the text you’ve read in the previous lesson. For example:

Write a description of a city and use the phrase ‘like Orwell’s Big Brother’ in your opening paragraph.

Write a description of a person and use the phrase, ‘like Jane Eyre on a bad day’ in your answer.

Write a description of how school makes you feel and use the phrase ”that Dickens would be proud of’ in your answer.

Allusion. It works. Try it!

My first forays into Academic Research.

When I hosted an #engchatuk focused on raising boys’ attainment in English a few weeks back, someone whose opinion I value hugely, tweeted me, and asked in far more polite terms than I could ever possibly hope to convey here, ‘why don’t you stop bangin’ on about how shite we English teachers are with boys and do some actual research into it?’

And so I am.

Today, I attended a day’s induction into the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) ‘Enquiring Schools’ programme. The NFER’s website, which you can access here, describes the Enquiring Schools programme as an initiative which encourages, ‘a fresh approach to teacher development and school improvement built around enquiry-based projects carried out by teachers in school.’ Bloody great.

The programme offers teachers coaching on how to conduct research in areas that they feel will benefit the students in their school. I applied for a place on the programme, citing boys’ attainment in English as my area of interest. People who are familiar with my blog, will know my concern with boys and English. A range of previous blog articles on boys, English, and school, can be accessed by clicking on the following links:

Pervy Boys

Balance for Boys- An enquiry into the English Curriculum

An Insight Into the Male Experience – Are we asking too much of our boys when we ask them to walk away from violence?

Dear PE Teachers- the role of PE teachers in raising attainment of boys in English. 

 Back to today. I began the day with my usual enthusiasm. A text I sent to @willett_gemma at the crack of dawn read, ‘Really can’t be arsed with today. I don’t want to talk to people.’  Turns out, I could be arsed to talk to people, because I did. And the reason I talked to people was because I was thoroughly impressed by them. Not only were my fellow ‘enquirers’-and the people leading the course- thoroughly nice people, but they also wanted to achieve valuable outcomes for students from an evidence-based standpoint. Marvellous.

I’ve never felt comfortable in an academic environment. I still, even to this day, after three (frankly, horrible) years at Exeter University, and four years teaching, feel like a fraud. I don’t speak proper, I’d rather talk about trainers than Game of Thrones, and I don’t think being nerdy is cool, not even in an ironic way. Such are the complexities of my egomania; at times I feel like I know more than anybody; at others I feel like I know nothing. I’m a fraud and everyone knows that if I had a spare hundred quid I’d spunk it on a pair of 90s (that’s Nike Air Max) rather than a box of highlighters and a teacher planner.

Because of all this,  I thought that I’d stick out like a sore thumb today. Everyone’d know more than me and I’d be floundering. Turns out, I was wrong. People had the same apprehensions as I did, and people were frank in their willingness to discuss this fact. The course leaders were excellent in allowing us ‘enquirers’ the opportunity to voice our anxieties, ask questions, and just hammer things out amongst ourselves. Discussion was encouraged. And best of all,  people didn’t roll their eyes, as they usually do, when I said things like, “Well actually, what the research says is…”

I was able to talk to three people today about my concerns regarding the impact of a female-centric English curriculum on the attainment of boys. And not one of them called me sexist. Better still, not one of them saw the mention of boys attainment as an opportunity to state that girls ‘have it far worse’. They spoke rationally to me and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.

As far as the programme goes, the biggest strength of it, as far as I can garner at this early stage, is its honesty.  It doesn’t purport to be something it’s not.  It’s not about research; it’s about enquiry. ‘You are teachers who want to be better; not researchers who want to tell teachers how to be better’ was the gist of it.  The programme is about helping real teachers conduct investigations into education under conditions that take into account the reality of being a teacher-and a student. Yes, one of us might well conduct a piece of research that has global impact. Maybe. But if not, who cares? So long as what we do improve our own ability to teach, and attempts to achieve valuable outcomes for our students, that’s enough.

So, what did I learn? Lots.

I learned that educational research is a tricky business. It’s very difficult to conduct ‘real-life’ research that is easily replicable in any number of different contexts: There are simply too many variables involved. But that’s okay. Accept that fact and move on; something is better than nothing. Any research is a springboard for further research. That is how we progress.

I learned that there are teachers out there who value evidence-based research as much as I do.

I also learned that what you originally set out to research can change dramatically over time for myriad reasons. As it currently stands, my research question runs thusly: ‘How does the use of a masculine-focused approach impact on boys’ attitudes towards English?’

I foresee a three-pronged approach:

  • Public displays of praise and reward via the use of ‘league’ tables that award points based on progress and contribution to class discussion. To be started, completely afresh, each week to make everyone feel that they have a chance of finishing top.
  • A change in the assessment system: students will also conduct, alongside essay based assessments, multiple choice tests on subject knowledge. This is to test the, largely anecdotal, evidence that suggests boys like to ‘be right or wrong’.
  • CPD aimed at teachers which aims to explore different aspects of masculinity and ask how teachers can explore masculinity, and what it’s like to be man, just as often as they explore feminist perspectives.

I must also consider:

  • What do I want to see at the end of the project?
  • Exactly what is a ‘masculine-focused’ approach, and how do I implement it?
  • How will I test the impact of this? Will I use questionnaires? Tests? Interviews? Observations?
  • What will I measure? Atttitudes? Attainment? Engagement?

I’ve included all this, largely because I’m keen to see what people think. Am I talking bollocks? Because that is something I do. Do I need to change my focus? Are there flaws in my proposed areas for investigation?

Do let me know. Please. And thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

TEACHERS NEED STYLE GUIDANCE. NOW.

Following David Crystal’s appearance at the Hay Literary Festival (where he was brilliant, by all accounts), The Guardian published an article outlining Crystal’s view, that ‘Exam board rules on punctuation are wrong, wrong, and wrong.’

In the article, David Crystal criticises the ‘latest guidance’ aimed at teachers, which allegedly bans the use of the Oxford comma.

My first thought was immediately as to the whereabouts of this ‘latest guidance’. The article chooses (conveniently?) to utilise the passive voice and omits the subject from the sentence, thus rendering the task of being guided rather troublesome.  Which is a concern. Mostly because, this year I started teaching an English Language GCSE in which 40% of marks are awarded for ‘technical accuracy.’ So, with this in mind, I really need to know: is the Oxford Comma a goer, or not?

A few other things:

What’s the deal with quotation marks? I instruct my students to use inverted commas to delineate quoted material, but I know for a fact that students, even at KS5, still think it’s okay to chuck speech marks all over the place. Presumably this is because they haven’t been told otherwise by every single teacher they’ve had before me.

And ‘quote’ is a verb right? Because I’ve been telling my students to write, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quotation from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’ but I’m quite sure that others are happy with, ‘In the article, the writer uses a quote from Gordon Brown to convey a sense of…’

Going back to The Guardian’s article, there seems to be some ambiguity as to who is to blame for this…er…ambiguity. Is it the fault of the Government, or the exam boards? Let’s start with the exam boards. I teach AQA. I love AQA. They give me qualifications when I need ‘em, and they can be very helpful. But, as far as I’m aware, what they haven’t given me, is guidance on punctuation and grammar.  A style guide is what I’m after. An ‘AQA Style Guide for Key Stages 3, 4, and 5’. Perhaps there’s one about, I thought, and I just haven’t seen it. I asked Twitter:

 Teachers of AQA English. Have you ever seen a document outlining accepted spelling, punctuation, and grammar forms?

As I write, there’s 5 hours left to vote and so far I’ve had 77 responses. 95% of respondents replied in the negative. That is, of 77 English teachers, 73 have never seen any official guidance on what is correct, and what is incorrect, in terms of the SPaG element of the English course.  Granted, this is a really small sample, but that still equates to 2190 students being taught by teachers who, to be frank, don’t know what they should be teaching with regard to SPaG, myself included. Incidentally, of the people who replied ‘YES’, only one of them responded to my pleas for advice as to where they found this guidance, and this she said, was found in an AQA textbook. I’ve not found any guidance in my own AQA textbooks.

I’ve asked AQA for some advice as to where I might find some official guidance. So far, they’ve not replied to my tweet. Serves me right for not wearing a tie in my profile picture. My own search for guidance on the AQA website was fruitless. I could find no official guidance, other than what’s outlined in the mark schemes. Which isn’t very useful. The new English Language specification tells us students must be able to ‘use grammar correctly and punctuate and spell accurately’, but offers no advice as to what is classed as correct.

So that’s the exam boards. Now, the Government.  Guidance on Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar for the KS3 National Curriculum implores teachers to build on the knowledge acquired at KS1 and 2. The expectation of what is to be learned at KS1 and 2 is outlined in this document:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335186/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_English_220714.pdf

The second half of the document, specifically the glossary, is very useful and I urge all Heads of English to do whatever they can to ensure that their staff are familiar with the terms. This can only be a good thing.

However.

Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to base their teaching of SPaG on the knowledge that kids should have acquired at Primary?

Is it fair to ask Secondary Teachers to sift through documents aimed at primary school teachers just to find the slightest whiff of guidance relating t SPaG at  GCSE and A-Level?

Is it fair for the government, the exam boards, or whoever, to tell David Crystal the Oxford Comma is banned, and not me?

I don’t think it is fair.

So, this is what I want.  I want exam board guidance on exactly what’s allowed. I want exam board style guides aimed at Secondary Teachers, telling us exactly what’s right and what’s wrong. Who’s up for it. AQA?